In mental health research, NIH needs to focus less on tomorrow and more on today


Over the summer, the National Institute of Mental Health got its first new director in 13 years. As Joshua Gordon settles into the top job at NIMH, one of his primary tasks should be to respond to the widespread perception that the agency — the world’s largest funder of mental-health research, with an annual budget ofapproximately $1.5 billion — has lost sight of its most fundamental mission: finding ways to ease the burden of mental illness for those affected by it today.

For the past decade, an increasing emphasis on neuroscience research has eclipsed this public-health mission, leaving a research void that results in unnecessary and protracted suffering in our communities.

Gordon is well situated to respond to this tension. With dual degrees as a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, he is a clinician who treats patients suffering from serious mental illnesses as well as a basic science researcher who studies genetic mutations in the brains of mice for clues to the mechanisms of psychiatric disorders.

These are two ways of approaching the same goal: One improves the lives of individuals and families today, the other seeks a foundation for the treatments of tomorrow.